CLEVELAND, Minn. -- In the apple business, everyone's looking for perfection -- a crisp, sweet apple that grows in every climate, resists disease and stores well.
After 30 years of trying, William Cox believes he's found it in his newly patented Stella Minnesota variety. And he's willing to bet the farm -- in this case, his orchard -- on its future success.
Stella, so far, is a wonder. The early season apple combines a great balance of tartness and sweetness while retaining that taste in storage. Stella trees also show rapid growth and produce fruit at an early age.
That's according to Cox, anyway. Still, many of the most beloved apples -- including the Paula Red and Wealthy -- began with big dreamers like him.
But he's chosen an unusual path -- developing Stella without the support of a land-grant university or a major commercial nursery -- and experts say he's a long way from proving, with research and experience, that Stella has all the traits he boasts.
If he does, then Stella could join about a dozen other Minnesota apples that have distinguished themselves as quality fruit that consumers crave. If not, then the 60-year-old Cox's retirement just got a whole lot smaller.
To illustrate the challenge, one must turn to the University of Minnesota where researchers spent 30 years developing Honeycrisp before releasing it to growers in 1991. Cox first discovered Stella's unique traits about five years ago and hasn't done exhaustive tests or put enough seasons under his belt to know if it's a contender or a pretender.
Nevertheless, Cox took the expensive step of getting a U.S. patent and the exclusive rights that go with it.
These apples have Minnesota beginnings
The following is a list of popular apples with Minnesota beginnings. The list was developed by the University of Minnesota, and includes the apple, year released and description:
Haralson, 1922 -- tart, winter.
Beacon, 1936 -- early, red.
Prairie Spy, 1940 -- culinary, striped, winter.
Fireside, 1943 -- high-quality eating, winter.
Regent, 1964 -- red, winter, balanced flavor, high quality.
Honeygold, 1970 -- sweet, crisp, yellow.
State Fair, 1977 -- red, early fall.
Sweet Sixteen, 1977 -- sweet, striped, late fall.
Keepsake, 1978 -- small, late, sugarcane flavor, long storage life.
Honeycrisp, 1991 -- juicy, crisp, dessert quality, very long storage.
Zestar!, 1998 -- earliest, balanced flavor.
Wealthy, 1860 -- moderately tart, striped, developed by independent grower Peter Gideon.
(Source: Minnesota Apple Growers Association and University of Minnesota)
"The response we've had just this year has been tremendous," said Cox, who sold 20 bushels of Stella from his orchard this fall. "I'm quite confident it will fly."
Like many apple growers, Cox has been experimenting for much of his career. He religiously used excess pulp from his apple cider as compost for his garden. Inevitably, thousands of seedlings sprouted up. Of those, he hand-picked those of interest -- some have narrow, long leaves; others broad, fat ones.
He'd place those in an experimental row in his orchard and wait patiently -- sometimes as long as 10 years -- for the saplings to mature and produce fruit.
One stood out from the pack, and Stella was born. Now Cox has contracts with growers in eight Midwest states and Washington state to develop his apple, from which he'll get a 2 percent cut of the profits.
"It's probably divine guidance or the fickle finger of fate," joked Cox, whose 400-tree orchard is about two miles southeast of Cleveland in southern Minnesota. "I guess it's not dumb luck because I'm probably too dumb to have dumb luck."
Dave Bedford, the University of Minnesota research scientist who released Honeycrisp, said that Cox won the lottery by finding Stella, but he'll need do to it again to make Stella a household name and rank it among dominant Minnesota apples such as Honeycrisp.
For example, in the university's apple breeding program, where the parent seeds are controlled, only about one in 10,000 seedlings produces a high-quality tree, Bedford said. "So you can see the odds of people that just plant a few," he said. "It can happen. You can win the lottery by buying one ticket too, but it's somewhere around those same odds.
"He's a long way from really crossing the tough hurdles yet. ... But it's really not a matter of whether he can do it or not. The whole thing comes down to, is it a good enough variety?"
So far, sales of Stella have been brisk at Cox Apple Orchard. Last week, Cox had only a handful of bags left from this year's harvest. But whether that's just consumer curiosity or a mark of its quality, only another season will tell.
Ralph Yates, the largest single apple grower in Minnesota, said that although the odds are stacked against Stella, there's a long list of major apple varieties that started with a grower stumbling upon it in an orchard.
"It's a fascinating industry that way," Yates said. "Anything really can happen if the stars are in alignment."
In 2002, apples were a $9 million business in Minnesota, which ranks 28th in apple production with more than 600,000 bushels annually.
Cox hopes Stella can somehow boost Minnesota's apple industry, even if that impact is decades down the road.
"I would like nothing better than for this apple to be grown in everybody's backyard," he said.
Cox acknowledged that he's taking a big financial risk with Stella, which is named after his mother-in-law. He also said that he's no different than any other farmer that sometimes goes years without a profit and continues to reinvest.
"Farmers generally have more optimism than common sense," he said. "They're incurable romantics. They don't want to do anything else. ... I'm no smarter than the rest of them."
Said Bedford: "It's pretty amazing what he's doing, and I just hope that he's backing the right horse."
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